Correlating in the Dark

It’s pretty simple stuff – correlation does not imply causation. A correlation between two variables does not necessarily imply that one causes the other. That your team wins every time you wear that funky old flannel shirt doesn’t mean that funky shirt causes your team to win – but you wear it anyway. It couldn’t hurt. There’s no need to run statistical tests that calculate correlation between variables like the Granger causality test – or do convergent cross mapping and all that. It just feels good to embrace the logical fallacy. Cause-and-effect is always a mystery, and yes, that corner liquor store that sold that big winning lottery ticket will soon sell a whole lot more lottery tickets, even if none of those subsequent tickets are winners. It just doesn’t work that way – each unique lottery ticket, wherever it’s sold, has an absolutely equal and infinitesimally small chance of being a winner. It doesn’t matter. It’s cum hoc ergo propter hoc – “with this, therefore because of this” (the flannel shirt) – or post hoc ergo propter hoc – “after this, therefore because of this” (buying a lottery ticket at that special liquor store) – and you really can convince yourself that an event that follows another is necessarily a consequence of the first event. It’s all nonsense.

The corollary here is that almost everyone embraces that nonsense because it’s comfortable, or comforting. If only this hadn’t happened then that other thing would have happened. If only Bush hadn’t screwed up so badly, McCain would have won in 2008 – and if only Romney hadn’t said that forty-seven percent stuff, or had been more severely conservative, or less conservative and more empathetic, or something, he would have won the last time around. That’s comforting, but it doesn’t account for Sarah Palin scaring the hell out of a whole lot of people, even Republicans, and for McCain coming off as the befuddled angry old man yelling at the kids to get off his lawn. Bush had nothing to do with that – and it doesn’t account for Romney having the charisma of a slab of drywall and Paul Ryan’s inability to run away from his plan to end government as we know it, leaving everyone in a Hobbesian hell or an Ayn Rand paradise, depending out your point of view. Cause-and-effect is always a mystery – there are always more variables than anyone can account for. One can do convergent cross-mapping forever but there’s always more to do. Or it may be that Karl Rove didn’t wear his lucky shirt.

That doesn’t help much. There must be a reason for the Republican’s current problems. The complete polling numbers are now in – the Republicans are totally “estranged” from America. No one agrees with them on any issue, and now they’re going after each other. They may have bet it all on the Tea Party stuff – end government as we know it, so it does next to nothing at all and everyone is totally free at last, and bring Jesus back into government, and stop pretending blacks and Hispanics and gays or anyone else needs special protections or even a little help, and make women modest and pure once again, and make sure everyone has a gun too, a big one, and fix the giant debt crisis. This was bold, but no one seems to be outraged at what is supposed to outrage them, and now both John Boehner and Paul Ryan are on record saying there really is no immediate debt crisis at all – but there might be one soon, or one day. Most economists now say even that’s nonsense – it just ain’t gonna happen. The Republicans have a mess on their hands.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus presented that amazing blueprint aimed at rebuilding the party – after a four-month analysis it was a blunt and harsh assessment of the party’s problems with women and minorities – and it wasn’t well-received. Some, like Rush Limbaugh, thought it was bad advice, while others, establishment Republicans, thought it was good advice, but soon figured out it was impossible advice – impossible until the ultimate charismatic leader comes along. Republicans spent a week or more chasing cause and effect all over the map. Now Rove says he can imagine the next Republican presidential candidates supporting gay marriage, and Slate’s David Weigel does the footwork and talks key party leaders – the base of the party will never go there and there’d be no more Republican Party if they try. Republicans over sixty-five are the party’s most reliable voters, and they oppose gay marriage by a 68-25 margin. Case closed.

Things are bad. No one agrees with them. They lost the culture war that started in the sixties and personal responsibility is now kind of a joke – just two code words for being gleefully nasty and greedy, a rhetorical lever to be used to pry stuff away from folks they don’t like, those who aren’t sufficiently just like them – and Obama is certainly not sufficiently like them. Many have noticed he’s black, and not only that, he talks about inclusion and tolerance all the time, not righteous punishment of the unusual folks, or those who like science far too much, or those wary of going to war all over the place to make all those foreign folks behave the way they should, like good Americans. Not only that, Obama did what no other president had been able to do, he got Congress to pass something like universal healthcare for Americans, even if it wasn’t much – just subsidized almost universal participation in the private healthcare insurance racket. In exchange for the tens of millions of new paying customers those private insurers do have to play by some rules, but they do get paid in full for each and every new customer. It’s a sweet deal, but Republicans hate the rules, and they hate everyone chipping in so no one dies in the streets, but it did pass, and the Supreme Court, carefully packed with conservative by both Bushes, betrayed them and declared it all quite constitutional. They’re still trying to get over that. They’re nearing forty successive votes to repeal this Obamacare thing in its entirety, and they’ve never once even come close.

How did it come to this? That’s the question, and that started the great scavenger hunt for cause and effect. The Washington Examiner’s Philip A. Klein was first out of the gate – he argues that the Iraq War essentially made Obama’s election and the passage of the Affordable Care Act possible – so liberals and progressives and bleeding hearts of all kinds should thank George W. Bush. He gave you your damned healthcare victory, by screwing up so badly. It’s an if-then thing. If we’d found weapons of mass destruction, and actually planned for occupation and reconstruction, thirty or forty million more Americans would have no healthcare at all now, as it should be in a system where you pay for what you get or do without. Klein is angry about that, and a bit sad.

In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan was saying something similar – detailing the damage that the war has done to the Republicans’ reputation in foreign policy and then having that spill over domestically, particularly among younger voters. It’s a matter of losing trust, and then there’s Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative, who says the Republicans’ position in the post-Iraq world is just like what the Democratic Party faced after Vietnam:

America has been at war in Afghanistan for the entire adult life of any voter under 30. For still younger Americans, every living memory is of a country with troops in combat overseas – and for what? The wars haven’t brought prosperity: just the opposite. They haven’t reaffirmed traditional sex roles or Christianity or family values, all of which are challenged by veterans coming home with missing limbs or mangled minds. The cultural resonances of this decade of war are the opposite of those of Vietnam; they’re closer to those of Great Britain after World War I. Britain, too, won its war and wondered what that meant.

Republicans split over Bush’s wars as deeply as Democrats once split over Vietnam. The raw numbers aren’t similar – the antiwar right is not as numerous as the antiwar left once was – but the philosophical depth of the divide is as great. And it’s a generation gap. Boomer Republicans are still refighting old wars – Benghazi is the new Khe Sahn, and they’ve adopted Israel not only as avatar of the lost South Vietnam but as symbol of the providential favor and military virtue our nation lost in the 1960s. Yet even the younger evangelicals – let alone Ron Paul’s youthful supporters and the neo-traditionalist “crunchy cons” – don’t buy it.

The GOP never learned to talk to the post-Vietnam generation in the first place; over the last decade, it compounded the problem by launching wars that, far from resolving the unfinished business of the Vietnam era, only made clear that those who are refighting the conflicts of that time are oblivious to today’s realities.

While Republicans wage a war on the past, Barack Obama has staked claim to the future – in the same way that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan once did. The reputation for competence in wielding power that Nixon (before Watergate) and Reagan accumulated now accrues to Obama’s advantage. He brought the troops home from Iraq – however reluctantly – and is on course to end the war in Afghanistan next year. His foreign policy, like Nixon’s and Reagan’s, involves plenty of military force. But like those Republicans, the incumbent Democrat has avoided debacles of the sort that characterized the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush.

Daniel McCarthy argues “trust” has shifted away from Republicans:

The party and the ideology soaked into it have lost their reputation for competence, and they’ve lost the emotional resonances that come with being the party of America: victory, prosperity, normality. Instead the resonances that come from the War on Terror are of a party and an era marked by resentment, recession, and insecurity. Although the party still sees Ronald Reagan when it looks in the mirror, what the rest of the country sees is George W. Bush – much as post-Vietnam Democrats continued to think of themselves as the party of Franklin Roosevelt when in the minds of most Americans they had become the party of Johnson and McGovern.

Until the Republican Party can come to grips with its failure, the Democrats will be the party Americans trust to govern.

So it’s post hoc ergo propter hoc – “after this, therefore because of this” – the war is to blame for everything. That war in Vietnam ruined everything for the Democrats for decades. Now it’s the Republicans’ turn.

This meme is spreading. Ross Douthat argues in the New York Times that the Iraq War is largely the reason for the Republican Party’s current problems – all of them:

Obama didn’t just benefit from the zeal that entered the Democratic Party through the antiwar movement; he also benefited from the domestic policy vacuum left by Bush’s Iraq-ruined second term. The Bush White House’s “compassionate conservatism” was the last major Republican attempt to claim the political center – to balance traditional conservative goals on taxes and entitlement reform with more bipartisan appeals on education, health care, immigration and poverty. And as long as the Republican Party was successfully hovering near the middle, the Democrats had to hover there as well.

But once Bush’s foreign policy credibility collapsed, his domestic political capital collapsed as well: moderates stopped working with him, conservatives rebelled, and the White House’s planned second-term agenda – Social Security reform, tax and healthcare reform, immigration overhaul – never happened.

That changed everything:

This collapse, and the Republican Party’s failure to recover from it, enabled the Democrats to not only seize the center but push it leftward, and advance far bolder proposals than either Al Gore or John Kerry had dared to offer. The Iraq war didn’t just make Obama possible – it made Obamacare possible as well.

Nor is it a coincidence that these liberal policy victories have been accompanied by liberal gains in the culture wars. True, there’s no necessary connection between the Bush administration’s Iraq floundering and, say, the right’s setbacks in the gay-marriage debate. But cultural change is a complicated thing, built on narratives and symbols and intuitive leaps.

Douthat is widening the argument here:

In a similar way, even though Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney weren’t culture warriors or evangelical Christians, in the popular imagination their legacy of incompetence has become a reason to reject social conservatism as well. Just as the post-Vietnam Democrats came to be regarded as incompetent, wimpy and dangerously radical all at once, since 2004 the Bush administration’s blunders – the missing WMD the botched occupation – have been woven into a larger story about Youth and Science and Reason and Diversity triumphing over Old White Male Faith-Based Cluelessness.

Of all the Iraq war’s consequences for our politics, it’s this narrative that may be the war’s most lasting legacy, and the most difficult for conservatives to overcome.

One thing causes another. If only this hadn’t happened then that all those other things, no matter how seemingly unrelated, would never have happened.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog is having none of this:

Douthat seems to be suggesting that, absent the rise of the netroots, Democrats would never have won another presidential election – this despite the fact that Democrats beat Republicans in the presidential popular vote in 1992, 1996, and 2000.

Also, what’s Douthat’s counterfactual? Is he asking us to imagine a world in which the Bushies were correct in their assessment of intelligence about WMDs and competent in their management of the war, even though the rest of the Bush presidency was an exercise in incompetence, from letting 9/11 happen to letting bin Laden get away to busting the budget to destroying the financial system, with Katrina incompetence along the way? Didn’t America turn against Bush not because he screwed up Iraq, but because he screwed up everything? How do you filter just one failure out?

And as for Social Security reform, tax and healthcare reform, immigration overhaul, that stuff that never happened, correlation isn’t causation:

Douthat is flat-out wrong if he thinks there’s a link between Bush’s loss of foreign policy credibility and the failure of his Social Security overhaul. Bush put forward the Social Security proposal immediately after his second inaugural; by March 2005, the plan was so unpopular, with members of Congress and the general public, that it never had a chance – and yet at that time Bush still had approval ratings hovering around 50%. Bush’s free-fall in the polls didn’t kill his Social Security plan; it really may have been Social Security, not Iraq that led to Bush’s poll plummet.

And by the time Bush was proposing immigration reform, the only people still generally on Bush’s side were the right-wing end-timers – and they’re the ones who opposed him, while continuing to be unswervingly loyal to him on just about everything else. (They opposed him on this, Harriet Miers, and Dubai Ports World – that’s it.) Many of his supporters on immigration were Democrats who opposed him on most other issues. The politics of Iraq were irrelevant.

In short, when you’re looking for cause and effect, you can just make things up, and as for the war causing a secondary rejection of social conservatism, that doesn’t match reality either:

If we’re talking about gay rights, remember that we’re talking about a movement that made a great deal of progress during the Reagan era, an era otherwise marked by an extreme conservative backlash – and that happened despite the AIDS epidemic and initial calls for action such as quarantine and tattooing of homosexuals.

And if we’re going to talk about public revulsion against Republicans on issues of science vs. superstition, one name has to be mentioned (of course Douthat doesn’t): that of Terri Schiavo. The public was repulsed by the Bush/GOP approach to the Schiavo case, and that had a significant impact on Bush’s popularity. Once again, how do you imagine Bush administration competence on Iraq while also recalling that debacle?

One can do convergent cross mapping forever but there’s always more to do:

Ultimately, the problem with Douthat’s argument is that it tries to separate what Bush believed from how he carried it out.

Yes, Bush screwed up, but a major reason he screwed up was that his ideas were wrong – and they weren’t just his ideas, they were mainstream Republican ideas: neocon attitudes toward Iraq, Social Security privatization, a religious-right approach to end-of-life issues, contempt for the largely non-white population of New Orleans, and, ultimately, a laissez-faire approach to financial regulation that destroyed the world economy.

If an opposition party promoting different ideas went on to victory, it’s because the public rejected many of the ideas of Bush conservatism as well as their execution, not because of one isolated debacle.

Kevin Drum is on the same page:

Social Security reform was never going to happen, period. Democrats were unwaveringly opposed from the start, and would have been under any circumstances. Likewise, although it’s true that immigration reform was sabotaged by a conservative rebellion, there’s little reason to think it had anything to do with the war. It was a grassroots revolt from a party base that had always hated the idea. As for tax and healthcare reform, I don’t remember those even being on the table. There was never any serious push for healthcare reform – or any expression of interest from the Bush administration – and tax reform was more a vague wish than a serious proposal.

Drum has a simpler explanation for all this:

The mundane truth is that presidents rarely accomplish big things domestically in their second terms. And to the extent they have, they’ve done it under worse circumstances than Bush: LBJ had Vietnam, Nixon had Watergate, Reagan had Iran-Contra, and Clinton had Monica Lewinsky. The Iraq War may have played a part in Bush’s second-term collapse, but his domestic failures were due far more to scandal, political miscalculation, and garden variety weariness than to the war – and Obama’s win in 2008 was due to all those things plus an epic financial collapse. His margin of victory was pretty much exactly what you’d expect given a lousy economy and eight years of his party being out of office.

And the nation really wasn’t pushed left:

Social liberalism proceeded apace all through the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The failure in Vietnam did nothing to slow it down at all. And the aughts were a mixed bag. Abortion and gun rights, for example, stayed stuck in the same rut they’d been in for years. Gay rights advanced, but that was just the continuation of a long-term trend. I’m hard put to give Iraq credit for any of this.

There’s no question that the Iraq War debacle was one entry on the bill of particulars against the Republican Party in 2008. But take a look at what’s happened since then. Obama has all but adopted Bush’s foreign policy as his own: he launched a war against Libya; escalated the war in Afghanistan; enormously expanded the use of drone attacks; and embraced virtually all of the worst aspects of Bush’s national security policy. But on the domestic side, he passed a big stimulus bill; repealed DADT; passed financial reform; and enacted a historic healthcare reform bill.

Once again, correlation isn’t causation:

To believe that Iraq was responsible for this, you have to adopt the perverse view that a huge foreign policy failure was responsible for (a) a continuation of that very foreign policy, but (b) a repudiation of Bush’s completely unrelated domestic policy. That doesn’t strike me as very plausible. Unfortunately the evidence suggests just the opposite: on a wide variety of measures, the effect of the Iraq War has actually been startlingly modest. It played no more than a bit role in ushering us into the Obama Era.

You have to adopt the perverse view? No, not exactly. You just have to be human. Almost everyone embraces nonsense about cause and effect because it’s comfortable, or comforting, although it’s hard to see who’s comfortable here, saying Bush caused it all – the whole Obama Era as it’s put here. But here’s a thought. Maybe it wasn’t Bush – it was Obama – cum hoc ergo propter hoc after all.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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